Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Calvin- God Damn It

For the last two centuries, it has been widely believed by Americans that what eventually became the United States was settled and founded on religious freedom. In 1620, the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts after a long voyage from England, to practice religion according to their beliefs. The basic version of history has been that they were unable to practice their religion freely in their mother country, so they came to a new land in hopes of creating a better world of religious freedom. When Americans hear this, their chests often swell with pride. After all, Americans think of their country as the land of the free and the home of the brave, as sung prior to every sporting event in “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is a popular notion, among Americans, that Americans are indeed the good guys. They are the ones the world turns to when there is a major problem and the one whose country exemplifies the most individual liberties on the planet. At least that’s what most Americans think, or used to.

While the “founding fathers” (whatever that means) who wrote the constitution, were certainly concerned about religious freedom, the premise that America was originally settled on religious liberty is far from being entirely true. Therefore, the idea that the Pilgrims came here for religious freedom will be closely examined in this essay. Moreover, the theory that the early settlers of New England came to America more out of intolerance of the religious practices of others will also be considered. Evidence will be looked at before their trip to the New World, delving into their theosophical belief in Calvinism, as well as after the formation of John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” and the concomitant intolerances and atrocities that took place. Finally, this essay will follow the vestiges of Calvinistic philosophy up until the present day as a major component as to why there is still religious and lifestyle intolerance, and, dare I say, hate, in the modern day United States.

The “founding fathers” of the United States of America were well aware of the repressive nature of church and state being one. Although, in the Articles of Confederation and later in U.S. Constitution, there is specific religious language bandied about, by the time the Bill of Rights rolled around, such language appears to be conspicuous only by its absence. The “framers” were highly educated men who knew well the history of Henry VIII and the all the metamorphosis that took place in the Church of England since then. They also were well aware of the dangers of church-run states, as was the case in some of the colonies. Therefore, the first of amendment of the United States Constitution specifically addressed the issue:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. - Bill of Rights, Amendment One

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution, along with his co-workers such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, were all relatively religiously tolerant men for their times, who, although may have attended different religious denominations, were considered Deists to one degree or another. Deism is a “religion,” that takes its inspiration from the natural world and may or may not believe in a God, but does not subscribe to any specific scriptural revelations. The Calvinists of the day, however, left much less room for the lifestyle and beliefs of others.

Calvinism, best known for its doctrine of Predestination, was named after the 16th century French reformer John Calvin and later developed by other prominent members of the Protestant Reformation movement. According to the doctrine of Predestination, which was a backlash to some of the practices of the Catholic Church of the time, salvation is not awarded to someone due to merit obtained through good works or the blessings of the church in this lifetime, but rather, God has already chosen those who will be saved beforehand. In essence, either you are a chosen one or you are damned to hell. Calvinists believed that your fate would be revealed by your own standard of behavior and example of purity. In short, if you were one of the “chosen ones,” you had it made in the shade, if not, it was “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and I do mean “damned,” in the most extreme sense of the word.

In practice, the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries was a morphed hybrid of Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reform Movement, which was heavily influenced by Calvinism. While some English Reformers attempted to influence the Church of England from within, others thought of that attempt as a watering down of the real principles of the Reformation Movement and instead elected to become separatists and break away from England all together. These separatists, who were later to become known as Puritans in some circles, attempted to create their idea of the perfect society in Holland in the early 1600s. This experiment only lasted a short while, however, when the Puritans became concerned that their children were becoming too influenced by the local culture and were therefore risking their good spiritual standing. For some, this mentality may be hard to understand because if they were indeed predestined, it didn’t really make a hell of a lot of difference what they chose to do. But, anyway, we can suspend our disbelief, just to humor whatever ghosts are left over hovering around from that wonderful era of human history. Finally, these soon to be “Puritans” decided to set sail for the New World, more specifically Virginia, in order to start their dream society. Yippee! My country ‘tis of thee, and all that other crap! Anyway, from at least one angle of vision, the Puritans were not being religiously prosecuted for their beliefs, but instead the Puritans thought the societies of England and Holland were too contaminated to associate with and consequently did not live up to their spiritual standards.

On the way to Virginia, the Mayflower was diverted north by storms to Plymouth, Massachusetts where they soon settled with help from the Native Americans. Oh, the providenial “acts of God,” are just extraordinary, don’t you think? Later, in 1629, John Winthrop led a more fanatical brand of Puritans to Massachusetts and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was there, in the region of Boston, that Winthrop delivered his famous “City on a Hill” sermon in 1630. In his speech, he envisioned a city where people lived up to the true Christian ideal and set a shining example for all to see. Reminds me of a George Harrison lyric that quotes Regan quoting Winthrop- “There’s an actor who hopes to fit the bill/ Sees a shining city on a hill/ Step up close and see he’s blind, wined and dined/ All he has is pose/ And that’s the way it goes.” Anyway, before setting sail from Europe, Winthrop was elected Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a post he would be re-elected to 12 times before his death in 1649. Although the Puritans were said to have come to the New World to practice religious freedom, it appears they showed very little tolerance to anyone who differed in belief even slightly.

While the Puritans came to the New World, in their minds to preserve their freedom of worship, they seemingly had zero forbearance for anyone who preached any idea outside of their line of thinking. Such defectors were generally deemed heretics. When Roger Williams said that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not a legal charter in God’s eyes because the Puritans had not purchased the land from its rightful owner, the Native Americans, the governmental officials were concerned. When Williams further insisted that punishing people for their religious beliefs was not the colony’s business but God’s business, the magistrates of the government could take any more and banished him from the colony. I find it quite interesting that the Puritans used religious extremism on somebody who was religiously extreme (by today’s standards), only because they were, in fact, even more religiously extreme. Williams, of course, later founded Providence, Rhode Island, by “the will of providence.” There was also an outspoken woman named Anne Hutchinson, who held religious meetings in her home, who concerned the magistrates even more. She claimed that she communed directly with God from time and time and that God told her that most of the preachers in the churches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were no better than the preachers in the Church of England. Talk about a major insult. She was also duly kicked out of the colony onto her proverbial Puritan ass.

The religious intolerance of the Puritans did not stop there. After all, why stop when you’ve got the hot hand and you’re on a roll? The Wampanoag Tribe, of whom the Puritans increasingly stole more land from as torturous time went on, had members regularly arrested by the Massachusetts Bay Colony for not being married in Christian ceremonies. A little more than 50 years later in 1691, panic had swept through Salem Village, when several young girls claimed they were “victims of witches.” In the first few decades of the colony, about 15 alleged witches had been executed, but never before had such fervor and hysteria affected the Puritan community. By the time the Witch Trials of 1692 were over, 19 women and men had been hanged for being witches and one more was pressed to death for the same alleged “crime.” Man, if I were around during that time, I would have never left my tarot cards out for anyone to see.

Not only did the Calvinistic Puritans come to the New World due to lack of tolerance of other faiths around them in Europe, but they also displayed excessive lack of tolerance to those who did not follow their creed in the New World. Does this sound anything like a certain branch of a certain modern day political party? One may naturally wonder how a community that claims to be religious and God-fearing could commit such abominations against other human beings? I mean, wasn’t it Mr Jesus Christ Almighty H(h)imself that propounded the teaching to love thy neighbor as thyself? Well, apparently they didn’t love themselves very much with all the penances, austerities and self-denial they were involved in.

Today it is often claimed by the religious right that America is a Christian nation and was founded on Christian principles. A stern look at history, however, shows that the picture was a little more complicated than that. While there were zealots, like the early Puritans, who thought that the Church and State should be one, there were also those more of Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison’s ilk, who saw the inherent danger in such a theocracy. Of course, they came after, well aware of how much religious fanatics could fuck a situation up and trample on the rights of others. When the Church and State are one they realized that a person would no longer be allowed to freely practice the religion of his or her choice. Instead, the person becomes subjected to a government with absolute authority over everything one does, says and thinks. The philosophy of Calvinism opens the door to killing in the name of religion because it polarizes the “chosen ones” from the evil “other.” As history shows, killing is quite negotiable when it comes to religious beliefs.

The philosophy of Calvinism also ultimately rules out free will. Therefore, Predestination is often referred to as Double Predestination. Not only are the chosen people destined to go to the Kingdom of God before they are born but those who are not chosen are destined to meet with eternal hell. Such a philosophy cannot possibly be equated with a loving God who is all-good. The problem of evil, in this case, could ultimately be traced to God Himself because it is He who created the individuals who will be destined to suffer without a choice in the matter. It is therefore not a much of a stretch to see how followers of such a supposed God could become callous to other’s suffering. That is because they depict a sadistic God who is omniscient and omnipotent and rather random about who suffers and who doesn’t in this world. When you worship such a “devil,” you eventually become quite a “devil” yourself, just by a matter of logical sequence.

While the philosophy of Calvinism has been reformed to a large extent to include the possession of free will for every individual, one can see vestiges of intolerance in the denominational descendants of the Calvinism to this day. All the major religious denominations in America that have sprung from the Reform Movement have been tinged with this virus of seeing those outside of one’s faith as “the other” and all of its inherently concomitant prejudices. Concepts such as “Jesus is the only way,” and eternal damnation are widespread beliefs of many millions of Americans up to the present day. While such philosophies don’t come right out and say that God has created someone that has no choice but to suffer eternally, they imply it. There are , after all, billions of people around the world who have been born into different religions, some who will have little or no opportunity to become “born again.” Is one to believe that such individuals will suffer hellfire for all eternity? When a person actually believes this, his or her psychology completely changes. Life becomes less sacred. If a normal parent more easily forgives their child than God does, what can be said of worshippers of such a God? Many logicians see the concept of eternal hell to be insulting to an all-good and all-powerful God. If God is the most merciful, than why is He condemning people to eternal suffering?

This prejudice (notice the make up of the word which signifies pre-judging others) also extends into the realm of innate lifestyle “choices” as well. If a person is predisposed to be a homosexual or lesbian, then how can you judge them? While many modern day followers of Calvin deny that sexual orientation is a psychological and/or physiological predisposition, the vestiges of their rather hateful philosophy (which is in complete contradiction to the teachings of Jesus), state that even if it were, such people are damned nonetheless.

In a related topic, many young people today are becoming atheists and agnostics because Christianity (in most of its modern day incarnations) cannot reconcile that fact that bad things happen to good people in a world said to be run by an all-good and all-powerful God. They rightly perceive that the world is too complicated and more people in general are too sophisticated to accept the Judea-Christian explanation to what they perceive as the “problem of evil.” In other words, why does “evil” exist in the world if God is both benevolent and omnipotent? Rabbi Harold Kushner understood this philosophical dilemma and attempted to answer it almost 30 years ago with an explanation that sent many followers of the Torah reeling. He said that God was indeed all-good, but His omnipotence must be questioned if bad things continue to happen to the innocent.

In a philosophy class I took a few semesters ago, the rather openly “Calvinistic” professor brought up the problem of evil and said that the cause of suffering in this world is the biblical phenomena of “original sin.” That is, 5000 years ago, or whenever it really was, God got sore at Adam and Eve and decided to blame all of humanity on their transgressions for all time. The only way out of that curse, apparently, was to accept Jesus as the only way, because, as Annie Lennox once sung, “I was born an original sinner/ And I was born in original sin.” When I raised my hand and, in my general meek and humble way, proposed the ideas of the East, which include karma and reincarnation to help aide the problem, this so-called “even-keeled professor, almost gave birth to an unsacred cow. I, however, continued, “If my Dad ever blamed me for something that my brother did, I thought he was out to lunch, or not exactly on the ball and of fair-disposition.” I cannot see how this idea of “representational sin” could be more philosophically sound than each person taking responsibility for their own actions as found in the East, I continued. Such crazy notions, as interpreted out of the Bible, have contributed to an even greater disharmony between science and religion than otherwise would have been there, because religion in this country has not traditionally aligned itself with facts or logic.

Doctrines like eternal damnation fly in the face of a fair and merciful God, no doubt. The basic premise has always been, as is used today by politicians and the media, that fear is a very effective emotion to use in order to control people. The best way to do this, is to paint another group of people, who may be different than you in some rather superfluous way, out to be your enemy and of the “devil,” more or less.

Throughout the history of America, there have been many issues caused by this “othering,” which can arguably be traced back to Calvinistic philosophy. First, the white settlers came and stole land from the Native Americans. “And the unsung western hero killed an Indian or three/ Then he made his name in Hollywood to set the White man free/ now, Jesus save me.” – Ian Andersen. The wars that followed were tantamount to almost complete genocide of a race of people. Next, the settlers imported Africans to work as slaves on their plantations for the purposes of economic development. . “Old pirate, yes, they rob I/ Sold I to the merchant ships.” – Bob Marley. Millions of innocent people were ripped away from their families and put into work-bondage as if they were sub-humans. So many slaves inhabited the United States, that, at one point, 15-percent of the entire population of the nation was owned by white landowners. Later, the term Manifest Destiny became the rationalization to traverse across the North American continent and claim the lands of the Native Americans and Mexicans by any means necessary, as if it were the white man’s inherent birthright.

Today, gay and lesbian people do not have the right to marry in most states and political candidates are subjected to debates mediated by the head of a Christian church. The Republican Party is highly influenced by the Christian right and a candidate must bend to its agenda if he or she has any hope of nomination. Originally, the Calvinist philosophy left no room for the points of view of others, and that tradition appears to continue to have somewhat of a hold as we enter into the second decade of the 21st century. Oh Calvinism, how I love thee, and how you love all the peoples of the world!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Video and the Radio Star

The first time I watched MTV, I was elated. Finally, a 24-hour a day cable network dedicated exclusively to one of my greatest loves- popular music. When I was younger, growing up in the 1970s, I was always impressed with the rather rudimentary music videos of the day that were often seen on shows like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Bert Sugarmand’s Midnight Special. As with some of the early MTV music videos, many of the promotional music videos that came before it on such shows do not hold up. However, many do, and back then, I was always happy to see my favorite stars either performing live or in one of those videos.

The first time I saw MTV, I was at a friend’s house. As soon as I sat on his living room chair, the video “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurhythmics popped on the screen. By then it was 1983, I believe, and the striking video, which featured philosophical lyrics and mixed sadomasochistic overtones with ideas of Hinduism, blew me away and stimulated my creative juices. This medium had great potential, I thought. I had always been a fan of the fledgling videos from the decade before and imagined myself with the creative medium to produce such videos for the new cutting edge network.

As fate would have it, however, I did not get into filmmaking like I desired, and as part of my newly-found spiritual practices (which coincidentally enough was from the tradition that spawned Hinduism), made a conscious decision to lay off television, which I did for a little more than five years. Then, when I started watching television again in the late 1980s, I was well aware of the popularity that MTV and VH-1 had gained over that period of time, and enthusiastically tuned in to see what was going on. To my initial dismay, I found a medium that not only did not cater so much to the rock ‘n’ roll that was so popular when I grew up, but more to visual music stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Although they were certainly talented on the musical level (especially Jackson), I felt that the medium had taken a turn that I had not expected, and in my stubbornness, did not fully appreciate.

Even now up until this day, I lament that video killed the radio star. I also lament, as Stevie Van Zandt put it in a speech this year at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, that the best music out there is no longer the most popular, like it was all those years ago, before the medium of music video took hold and good looks became more important than the music itself. But despite the nostalgia for FM radio not being what it once was, if I really think about it, I wouldn’t want things any other way.

I mean, after all, we live in a Capitalistic Democratic Republic, where the consumer ultimately rules the roost. Who am I to say what someone else should like and not like? I happen to not like what I call the over-production of much of the 1980s music. I happen not to like the fact that if a Joni Mitchell came along today it would be hard for her to get airplay because she can’t shake her ass that way Beyonce can. I was not into the disco music of the late 1970s, did not particularly get the whole grunge thing in the early 1990s, was not into hair bands, and for the most part, abhor the egotistical crude materialism of hip-hop, and never was really moved by contemporary R & B. I also don’t like that there are so few record companies today and they seem to have so much creative control over the modern artist. But if the consumer doesn’t like what is being presented to the public, they can rebel and go underground- which to me, is the original spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.

Moreover, there are many things about today’s music scene that are great. There are now, for example, with the help of the internet and the computerized music technology that really started in the 1980s, more artists to listen to than ever before. Maybe the cream of the crop are not making the kind of money that they once could have, due partly to, in my estimation, the poor taste of the public, but at least there are artists who are able to sincerely express themselves through music that may have not even had any kind of voice back in the day. There is also internet-based and satellite radio that plays more varieties of music than was ever before possible.

I understand that someone reading this might consider me a music snob. I, rather, see myself, as just like anyone else: I have my own tastes ((and distastes) in music for my own reasons and just happen to use a sometimes strong voice to get my point across.

One thing that has taken me a long time to learn, though, is that my initial distaste to the popular music of the day, often turns into like, years down the road when I revisit the same music. It is as Bob Dylan, a man who has reinvented himself several times but has still followed the beat of his own drum for five decades has said, “The times they are a changin’.” I can also imagine what Madonna’s response might have been if someone would have expressed their concern for the seemingly accidental prophetic statement that “video killed the radio star.” I can see her defiantly staring back and simply saying, “So what?!?”

Friday, April 2, 2010

An Always Hungry Day

I had one of those all-day hungry days today. Didn't think about it too much, just kept eating. As a matter of fact, it's 1 am and I'm still hungry now. I don't think I really ate before I went out the door, but after my Photographic Journalism class, I had firsts and seconds of Krishna Lunch. Now, I didn't exactly get a heaping plate either time or anything but I certainly got a belly-full of whatever they were serving- rice, cauliflower sabji and some salad. I did say ishq on the halava, though. Today I ate half a bag of chips. First time I've eaten any potato chips in about a month. Kind of made my mouth taste like a sewer but the first bite or two was enjoyable- well, kind of. This evening I made spaghetti and had seconds also. My regimen, which I was doing so good at, got whipped today, boy. I could eat something more now, but that would be kind of insane, wouldn't it?

I'm pretty much psychologically ready to get out of school and travel for the summer. One more month or so to go before I go go go. Govinda is going to Berkeley for graduate school in the fall and Radha may go to Emerson in the Spring semester of 2011. In the meantime, Shyam keeps playing his guitar and schlepping through Santa Fe College. Glani is graduating from the R.N. program and will start working at North Florida in May.

I'm going to have one whole apartment to myself when I get back from my summer travels and have been thinking how I will set it up. Right now my mind is too jumbled to think but I know it's going to be a nice cave that my friends will think is cool. Maybe I'll walk around in a bathrobe and smoke a pipe. It would look cool enough but I'd probably choke from accidental inhalation. I need to think about space and the fitting of my books, cds, records and stereo system. The kitchen should be a nice experience- controlling what goes in what cabinet and drawer. Buying my own set of spices and appliances for streamline-kitchen-Gargs action.

What will really be good is having the quiet time to write whenever I want. The TV will only go on when I say so. Sometimes the sound of it annoys me to no end. I have at least 100 projects up my sleeve that I would like to sink my teeth into in the upcoming years. No, I'm not going to grow my hair out ever again. It was getting in my way too much and my brother said I was starting to look like Tommy Chong- although he did think I was starting to look kind of hip- in a disheveled sort of way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Remembering Padmanabha in New England

Some Padmanabha New England Remembrances

by Gargamuni das

I cannot possibly put into words the loss I feel with the passing of Padmanbha Prabhu. Before he moved to Germany at the end of 1983, he lived on this side of the Atlantic, in a place called New England. Some 27 years after his move, his departure from this world has sent shock waves to everyone who knew and loved him. And make no mistake about it- to know him was to love him- and there are many devotees here who dearly miss him. My remembrances are just one small account, and not from the very beginning of his Krishna consciousness, but from a period between 1981 – 1983, that have left an indelible mark on my personal life. I hope the devotees in Europe enjoy hearing a little bit about this rare soul before he blessed them with his association in Germany.

Around the time I joined the temple, he used to cook the feast by himself in the Providence temple. He was made the temple president by default because all the other senior devotees had moved to other temples. Although not a managerial type, he had all the other qualifications to run a preaching center- he could cook, perform bhajans and preach very well. He was a bit messy in those days but his feasts were spectacularly big and delicious. So much bigger than what most temples serve out today. Oh my god were they ever delectable. Pakoras, curded sabjis galore, savories, fancy rice pulaos, chutneys, puris and sweet rice were generally the bare minimum.

My brother, Kesisudana and I worked in the kitchen full-time just washing the dirty pots he created. It was hard to keep up with him. He would add the ingredients with his signature horn sounds "ba-doo-boo-boo" (he was a music teacher) without ever following any recipes. Spending time with him in the kitchen for hours everyday, and hearing all his Krishna conscious stories was the consummate bhakta program. Sometimes he spoke to us kindly like a loving uncle, and sometimes joked with us with his great sense of humor like a close friend.

When we cleaned up after the feasts, he would put the leftover prasadam in transfer containers. He made sweet rice so delicious that I still dream of it today. Whatever leftover sweet rice that didn't fit in the container, he would personally eat that night. The next day, Monday, he would always do a grapefruit juice fast, sit on the porch all day, chant japa, and answer all the philosophical questions my brother and I had. He would also preach to whatever guests came, or whatever neighbors happened to walk by. He was so laid back and so self-satisfied. He never seemed to be in anxiety about anything.

This was around 1983. He pretty much taught me to cook. He was about 37 at the time, I was 19 and my brother was 18.

Sometimes, we would chant bhajans for three or four hours at a time. He knew all of Bhaktivinode Thakur's songs on the harmonium. I would close my eyes and be transported into another world. After stopping, he would pause with his eyes closed also- then slowly open them with a smile on his face, look around the room and just say "Awwww Krishna." As one devotee put it, “He was always one of the good guys.” He put bhakti above all considerations.

For me, those days in his association will always be precious.

The first time I ever visited a temple was in Hartford and he was there. First my brother and I talked to the temple president Pyari, and then Padmanabha appeared. He had cooked the feast.

"I want to go to India this year," he said "But I can't." "Just go in your mind then," Pyari said jokingly. "Okay," Padmanabha said in his happy-go-lucky fashion. Since it was my first time, I thought he was serious and speculated they were talking about astral travel. I thought he must be a mystic yogi or something. It turned out he was even better.

I remember once, he, my brother and I all went to Boston to help cook for the Ratha-yatra and the Whole Life Expo, which went on at the same time that year. In addition, I think Janmastami and Vyasa-puja were all about the same time as well. It was madness. We served thousands and thousands of plates of prasadam and were working in the kitchen for 16-hours a day for about four days.

Padmanabha burned his feet straining a gigantic pot of boiling potatoes in the back parking lot but just kept on cooking with blistered feet, unfettered.

When we got back to Providence we were totally dead for the rest of the week. We would rise and Padbanabha would lead kirtan in a very hoarse voice for about 20 minutes and then we would all crash in our various rooms upstairs. Sometimes we would wake up, look at each other, say nothing and then just go back to sleep. Other times, we would come out and chant a few rounds and then just go back in our rooms and crash again. This went on for days until we finally recovered.

We were bramacharis when I knew him. He was older and had read all of Prabhupada's books before he finally joined the temple in his mid-30s. He was very mature compared to the young passionate bucks running around the temple in those days.

After he moved to Germany, he married and had a son.Hanuman. It just dawned on me that it was he who got me saying "Hanuman Ki jaya!" anytime I had to lift something heavy. He was in the military before he was a devotee and was especially attracted to Lord Rama's pastimes.

I recently contacted a friend who had left the movement after living with Padmanabha for several months. He was deprogrammed when he was only 19-years old but he never forgot his older friend. Upon hearing the news, now 44, he wrote, Is that the devotee the I lived with in Providence ? If so, it is very sad he passed away. He was like a father figure and a great Man.”

I wondered about Padmanabha's next destination as I checked out of my hotel room after hearing the news the night before. As I left, I did the once-over, checking inside the nightstand. To my surprise, there I found Prabhupada's Gita right next to Gidgeon's Bible in the drawer. I picked it up with one hand and the book opened to 12.6 -7. To my delight, I read the following-

"For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Pritha, for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death."

He left us in New England suddenly at the end of 1983. My brother and I went out for the Christmas marathon and he went to his guru’s Vyasa Puja in Germany. He was requested to be president at one of the temples and he stayed there for good.

Now he has also left this world suddenly, after a brief illness. I guess that’s his style- short and sweet. I also guess Krishna has other plans for him. I feel so fortunate to have known such a great soul.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Political Factions and Progressive Tax

James Madison was very much concerned with the potential problem of faction due to his perceived fear of the power of the masses to trample upon the rights of the individual as provided in the U.S. constitution and later in the Bill of Rights.

Before we can go further into the discussion, a basic definition of the word faction seems appropriate. According to Webster, one definition of faction is “a party or group (as within a government) that is often contentious or self-seeking.” Another one reads, “party spirit especially when marked by dissension.” Thus a faction, in its basic stripped-down sense, implies a smaller group of people, within a larger group, whose inherent self-interest creates dissension, or some disunity within that larger group of people. In Federalist No. 10, Madison defined it thus, “A number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Here, the phrase “adverse to the rights of other citizens” is significant. In its milder and smaller form, Madison saw a faction as harmless and part of the general diversity of a nation. In its larger form, however, Madison saw said factions, as a very real threat to the health, fabric and ultimate survival of a union and the rights of the individual.

In the realm of subject pertaining to faction, Madison felt that such arenas as regime and religion were vulnerable. He was most concerned, however, with “the various and unequal distribution of property.” He thought that according to whether you were a property owner or not, you had distinct and separate interests in the logistics of society. Property owners, in general, have much more of an economic control over a nation, and with such control, are much more able to tilt the playing field of a nation in their favor.

In Madison’s mind, there were two ways to limit the harm caused by faction. The first way towards such limitation would be to remove the very cause of faction from the start; the second way would be to somehow control its effects. In reference to the first way, Madison saw only two real possibilities- to either remove people’s liberties as fought for in the American Revolution (which essentially would result in some sort of dictatorship or monarchy), or, in a sense, create some kind of “utopian” society where people’s interests and opinions create a homogeneous harmony. Seeing the first option as counter-productive to liberty and the second as impractical, Madison concluded that the only practical way to deal with the danger of faction is by controlling its effects.

Towards that end, Madison saw a Republic, or representational Democracy, as a much more viable option than a “pure Democracy.” In an outright Democracy of vox populi, majority rules on all issues including the voting in of specific laws. Because of its concomitant nature, this inherently has the potential to eclipse the rights of the individual that Americans hold so dear. In a small state, or in a nation where states have too much autonomy, such a factional minority can become more of a majority to the point of dominating or downright taking over a state. In a more diverse and larger nation, where representatives are elected from a larger pool and associate with representatives from other states, such a phenomena is much less likely to occur. It is also more likely that such representatives will be more competent. Partly to achieve these goals, Madison took the Federalist stance and saw a strong central government as essential to the preservation of the union and more specifically, the rights of the individual.

It just seems to me that factions can certainly be a hindrance to society when they get out of control, but a society devoid of them, would also essentially be a telltale sign of a lack of diversity. Therefore, a balance must be struck between the rights of the individual and the rights of groups of people that form and create special interests. There is nothing inherently wrong with “special interests” as long as they don’t gain special privileges that trample on the rights of the individual. This is, of course, especially pertinent today where lobbyists wine, dine and influence representatives towards their aims, often not in the best interest of individuals who wield less influence. Citizens have a right to form groups and parties to make their voices more strong, but the unequal distribution of wealth which goes hand in hand with a capitalistic economic system, can extend its hand into the political arena and sometimes do harm to the individual.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions. Ultimately, in a Democracy or a Republic, the individuals who vote or choose not to, only have themselves to blame for the state of the union and the protection of their individual rights- providing, of course, the elections are actually fair and free. I think that Madison was right in terms of the need for a strong central government to not only protect the individual rights of its citizens and the diversity of a nation, but also to make it more powerful and safe from the economic and defensive points of view. But no matter what system you have, let’s say a Republic, for example, if the hearts of the people are selfish and corrupt, they can ultimately expect nothing but corruption and self-interest on a wider scale from their elected leaders.

In Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Paine proposed a representational government combined with social programs to lift the common person out of the grip of poverty through the methods of progressive taxation. Paine was appalled by the glaring extreme between poverty and wealth in monarchies and wanted to ensure the colonies and soon the fledgling nation did not denigrate into what he viewed as an unjust state. He opined that progressive taxation be applied to “excess wealth” in order to level the playing field for all people. He felt that without such a progressive tax, no form of democracy could ultimately be maintained. In Paine’s later work, Agrarian Justice, he applied such an idea to the propertied paying a tax for the ultimate benefit of those who had no property.

Paine thought that property originally belonged to no man and since many who owned property inherited it or obtained it by special favors through an unjust monarchy, those who owned property should contribute to a fund for the common good of those who did not. He felt that those who had property had an unfair advantage over those who did not.

Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson discussed these notions at length- and Paine came up with the view that such a progressive tax was needed to ensure basic human rights to those who did not have property.

Whether you believe that no man originally owned all property, or all humanity originally has a right to all property, or God owns all property, Paine’s treatise in Agrarian Justice certainly must have some appeal on some level. It would seem to me that only those who are in possession of a large amount of land or hope to be some day might object. Even among those individuals, some may still agree on principle, based on utilitarian or humanity reasons. That principle being that no individual in a nation, despite his or her ambition, or lack thereof, should sink below a certain level of sustenance and maintenance is born of a collective consciousness that we are all ultimately in the same boat together. Even many of the wealthy who honor this principle agree with some form of progressive taxation.

Now, while one can easily understand how self-interest can make a wealthy person and property owner be against progressive taxation, it is a little more of a stretch to understand why someone who is not so economically endowed would be against it. But, there are also those who in principle, be they Libertarians (who may have some compassion for others but believe in individual charity) or simply envious self-interested people who may have some hopes of some day being wealthy, who are against the notion of progressive taxation on principle alone. They obviously believe in smaller government and are much more in favor of the rights of the individual, at least in the way that they perceive it.

It is, however, ironic that Paine’s whole idea of progressive taxation is spurned on by his sense of justice in defense of the rights of the individual as well. It appears that from an ideological point of view, both groups of political philosophies and factions, namely those that support some sort of progressive taxation and those who are vehemently against it, are acting out of the sense of the rights of the individual. So the question begs- is there more than one way to achieve the same goal or is one system inherently better than the other for achieving the same means? From Paine’s pragmatic point of view, there was really only one solution.

Paine was expert at explaining complex ideas in such a way to reach the hearts of common people. And as such, he was very much able to do something of lasting value for the common people- whom he felt got the short end of the stick. Particularly when he went to France- he saw first hand the dichotic disparity between the wealthy property owners and the common people and saw it as an abomination upon the very spirit of humanity. He wasn’t interested in big government getting its dirty paws on the wealth that the people worked hard for. Rather, he was concerned with those who monopolized wealth and property and used it to their unfair advantage to fuck everyone else over. He saw first-hand what it could do- so while he believed in Capitalism, he also believed that some sort of socialism must be there in order to ensure that the dream of Capitalism be preserved for all people into the future. In a sense, he was not a man prone to fanatical extremes, although it may seem that way because his views garnered so much controversy in Europe that he was just narrowly able to escape execution.

A person with extraordinary vision is often not very much appreciated when he or she is alive. They may be dismissed as a crackpot or even worse- seen as a dangerous radical. Or they may be honored all over the world in time, while contemporaries from the same town or village will see that person as ordinary. Sometimes they come from humble backgrounds and are people of modest means for most of their lives. But despite the shortage of accolades and remuneration they may receive for the service they do for society, they ultimately go down in history as great individuals. Thomas Paine, although he certainly did strike a chord in pre-revolution America and gained some prestige and honor for that, died pretty much in obscurity compared to the great wealth of writing and influence he left for the betterment of others in the sphere of political philosophy. Whatever your political philosophical beliefs and methods to achieve and preserve liberty may be, although you may not agree with everything Thomas Paine said, you almost have to acknowledge his place in American history in helping to achieve a freer life for all individuals.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll is Rock 'n' Roll

I was born in 1964, the year the Beatles came to America, and as they really were the most influential band going into the 1970s, in so many ways they shaped my life. I was a bit precocious as a kid and as a result, most of the friends that I hung out with after school were often four or five years older than me. Imagine, if you will, being 8-years-old in 1972 in northeastern Connecticut and having friends who were just becoming teenagers. What kind of music do you think I listened to?

I remember hanging out in Wayne Sperry’s basement. All the kids in the neighborhood did. While they smoked pot and made out with their girlfriends, I was allowed to stay there if I was quiet. As a result, I just sat there silently and listened intently to the music they blasted. At the time, I think, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and “Deep Purple’s “Machine Head” got a lot of spins.

One friend, named Joe, used to take me to his house and play me what he called “the real good stuff.” He turned me onto Dylan, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Beatles. I poured over the albums and memorized all the lyrics. By the time I was 10, my younger brother Kevin and I started collecting our own records.

Now, I don’t know why, but I have always gravitated towards the past. I think it is partly because I like to see where things come from, partly because I have certain since of gratitude, and partly because I always disdained the “unenlightened masses” swarming around the latest trends, even if it happened to be what I would later concede as good music. In short, I became a bit of a music snob, albeit, with pretty good taste.

Sure, I liked some of the newer groups that were hitting it big by the mid-1970s, like Boston and Queen, but if I had my way, I would have been much happier to turn the clock back to the 1960s.. By the time I was a teenager and my friends were listening to Blondie, Devo, and the Talking Heads, I was smoking reefer and listening to Steppenwolf, the Youngbloods and the Beatles’ “Revolver” over and over again.

Many of the popular artists of the late 1970s, who I love now, like Billy Joel, the Bee Gees, the Clash, the Ramones, or the Police, I resisted then. It wasn’t until I heard the song “Refugee” from Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes” album on a Saturday Night Live episode in 1979 that my attitude started to change.

When he hit the stage, I was startled. The energy was raw, rebellious, and electrifying. The hooks were magnetic and the lyrics were clever. And that voice- like a modern Dylan and Roger McGuinn, but with a fucking attitude. Not as angry as Elvis Costello per se, but a presence not to be denied. And not clueless and stupid like a Johnny Rotten or a Sid Vicious. “Who the hell is he?” I thought. Later, I heard the story of determination and defiance against the record industry behind “Damn the Torpedoes” and it dawned on me how Petty was carrying the torch of the truly thoughtful yet irreverent attitude of rock ‘n’ roll from his idols, like the Beatles, Dylan and the Byrds onto the next generation, while flipping the bird to the proverbial “man.”

It was Petty who opened up the floodgates of my mind for me and allowed me to accept new music as viable and not reject something simply because the crowd was into it. While that’s harder now, considering the sorry state of mainstream music, I have continued to keep an open mind because of Petty, who himself has continued to make great relevant music and sell out arenas and amphitheatres around the country as he pushes towards the age of 60.

That raw, defiant, and thoughtful music is what to me, rock ‘n’ roll is all about, no matter what era it is from. It is a music that honors the past and stays fresh and relevant into the future, whenever and wherever it is recorded. To me, that is the real spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, no matter what sub-genre you may want to classify it as. It is as Jerry Lee Lewis said in the film “History of Rock & Roll, as shown in class, “Rock ‘n’ roll is rock ‘n’ roll.” How could it be put any better?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This New Year, This New Decade

With the new year fast approaching I recently told my son that I am enthusiastic to get my life together with the help of some good old fashioned new year's resolutions.  "You say that every year," he said.  "And then you just revert back to your usual self within a few days."

"But this year will be different," I said.  "This year I'm extra focused."
"That's what you always say," he said.

Maybe so, but I still think this year will really be different.   

You see, January 1, 2010 will not only be the first day of the new year but also the first day of the new decade.  Woohoo!  Sounds exciting, heh?  But seriously thinking about it, I have to ask myself why?  With that day fast approaching, I have to honestly ponder, why does it give me a shot of anticipatory enthusiasm?  

Is it because I will not only be able to make new year's resolutions but new decade's resolutions as well?  I mean, I want to change my life for the better and get closer to my true potential for sure, but why is it that the start of the calendar year always gives me added hope to do so?  Why couldn't I get the inspiration to better my life and turn over a new leaf at any arbitrary time?  How about Tuesday, December 22, for example?

Perhaps it's because we live our lives according to how we divide and measure time incrementally through the use of a calendar.  Or perhaps it's because all living beings are innately programmed to have a dose of energy for everything that resembles a new start.  Sayings like, "Start with a clean slate in the morning" always had a special appeal to me for some reason, like the dawn of a new day always brought me hope after a decent night's sleep.

This coming new decade has certainly made me think about how fast time is truly passing by in my life.  When the decade of the "ots," or whatever people will finally figure out to call it, started in the year 2000, I was 35-years-old.  No spring chicken no doubt, but as the decade ends and I stand at 45-years-old, it now sounds mighty young to me.  When this next decade ends and I clock in at 55 (if I'm still around by then), 45 will also sound whipper-snapper-ish for sure.  That being the case, I want to take full-advantage of my "youth" while I still can.  And no, I am not having a mid-life crisis.  I don't even know when mid-life will really is because I have no real idea how long I will actually live in this current body.  

Anyway, no matter how I analyze it, I am stoked about this new decade and really really really want to get my proverbial shit together in every possible way.  No need to get into the details, other than to say this pertains to every category of my life.  Will I be able to get it together?  Will my new found enthusiasm waver as it does every year- at least according to my son?  Or will this new year and new decade finally be the catalyst for lasting and positive change?

Hopefully, I won't be performing this same old song and dance when I'm 55.  Hopefully, I will really have some good momentum by then and feeling even better than I did when I was 35, or even 25 for that matter.  What I mean to say is, time will really be running out by then to make any major improvements.  Of course, when and if I get there, there will be somebody older telling me how young I really am.  Whatever the case, there's no better time to realize that the time is now.